In China, for China, by China: Global Brands, Local Purpose

— Penny Burgess, CEO WE Red Bridge 

With Alibaba’s renowned shopping event, Singles Day, beating its sales record again with a staggering $38 billion in sales, the power of Chinese consumers and their appetite for new products is undisputable. In just a decade, Chinese shoppers have become some of the world’s most informed and influential consumers. Ever pragmatic in their brand choices, functionality remains key. But with the digitization of our retail environment enabling Chinese consumers to have more choices than ever before, what is the key to securing customer loyalty?

This year, WE’s annual Brands in Motion global study found that Chinese consumers are aligned with their Western counterparts in many ways, and expectations are rising. They are pushing brands to be more accountable, more ethical with their data and play a greater role in society than ever before.

Brands in Motion found that 47% of Chinese consumers are looking for brands to deliver on purpose as well as function, with 83% expecting brands to take a stand on important issues. Furthermore, almost half the respondents in China said that brands should focus on making local communities better.

When WE Red Bridge dug deeper with our Purpose in China study, we discovered that 89% of business leaders surveyed saw purpose as an immediate strategic need. However, 62% of respondents could not articulate what purpose is and only 16% felt equipped to define how best to lead with purpose. The opportunity for brands to drive increased loyalty and meet these elevated demands is there, but most businesses in China are still operating in an ambiguous environment. Most, but not all.


Global brands using their power for good

Global brands are using their size and clout to lead the way on brand purpose in China. Starbucks and Tesla are two brands that dedicated themselves to purpose work early on, but Coca-Cola’s WeCare initiative is perhaps the strongest example of an international brand doing good in a thoughtfully localized way.

WeCare encompasses a wide range of activities, allowing the company to systematize its corporate brand across CSR, technology, and arts- and culture-related endeavours. With WeCare, Coca-Cola invites all stakeholders, from customers to corporate executives, to improve the livelihood of Chinese consumers and make the world a better, cleaner place.

Coca-Cola is successfully touching on “the 4Bs,” principles laid out in our Purpose in China whitepaper for how brands ought to best identify and execute their brand purpose:

  • Be relevant. Define your purpose in China, for China.
  • Be the solution. Focus on making people's lives and society better, and understand how your purpose can achieve that.
  • Be flexible. Creating an effective purpose is about clarifying a timeless idea in a way that can adapt to today's fast-changing market.
  • Be focused. Your purpose should be simple and create an emotional bond with your stakeholders and local communities.

Coca-Cola’s responsive and wide-ranging WeCare initiative shows the power of flexible, relevant purpose solutions. Adaptability is especially important in China, where purpose campaigns that performed well in Western markets might not meet Chinese consumers’ expectations.


Local purpose and the power of flexible solutions

A brand’s purpose should be able to adapt to today’s fast-changing market and society without betraying the timeless idea at its core. China’s Alibaba Group has found myriad ways to put its purpose “make it easy for the world to do business” into action, notably through Alipay, which provides instant credit to farmers and smaller businesses, and allows customers to earn points they can put toward replanting areas of the country in need of trees.

Providing consumers relevant, personalized experiences localized to their expectations is key. If business leaders set a simple brand purpose at a global level, they need to build the flexibility to connect it with consumers here in China, and make sure they account for cultural nuances.

One thing Chinese consumers share with everybody else around the world: They expect brand purpose to be authentic. They’re looking for a great product, but more and more, they’re looking for a great product that comes from a brand that shares their values. If your brand can provide both, you’ll win the new brand loyalty among Chinese consumers.

For more on how both global and Chinese brands can connect their purpose with Chinese consumers’ expectations, read WE Red Bridge’s Purpose in China whitepaper.